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The Biculturation of the Vietnamese Student
Author: Min Zhou, University of California, Los Angeles, and Carl L. Bankston III, Tulane University
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnamese Americans became members of one of the United States largest refugee groups. By 1990, the group numbered over 615,000, a 40-fold increase in just 15 years. The Vietnamese came to the United States from a culture vastly different from most American cultures. Settled into socially isolated and poor ethnic enclaves with inferior local schools and streets beset by gangs and drugs, adult refugees remain poor but want desperately to get ahead without abandoning their native values, norms, beliefs, behavioral standards, and expectations. Thus, Vietnamese children often find themselves straddling two social worlds. At home or within their ethnic community they hear that they must work hard and do well in school in order to move up; on the street they are advised to rebel against authority and reject achievement goals; and todays popular culture espouses lifestyles and consumption standards that raise childrens expectations well beyond those of their parents.
These contradictory messages have produced a variety of responses. At the same time that Vietnamese children have been gaining a reputation for outstanding academic achievement (Caplan, Choy, & Whitmore, 1992), notorious Vietnamese youth gangs have emerged in many American cities (Long, 1996). Some Vietnamese children have scrapes with the law, and even commit violent crimes. Many students are still struggling with language problems, behind-grade-level education, and limited access to Vietnamese counselors.
In order to help educators and counselors deal effectively with the problems of Vietnamese children and encourage their achievement, this digest discusses the impact of traditional Vietnamese culture, family relationships, and bicultural conflicts on the childrens development and adjustment.
Vietnamese Commitment to Their Native Culture
Vietnamese parents tend to have relatively low levels of English language proficiency and education, low-paying jobs, and few financial resources. Though they work hard to improve their lives by taking advantage of American opportunities, they are also strongly committed to retaining their culture, values, and customs. So, for example, while Vietnamese parents encourage their children to learn everything that public schools can teach them, they also have established Vietnamese language classes in their communities in order to involve the children in Vietnamese community life, promote maintenance of their distinctive culture, and socialize them into accepting the goals and ambitions of their elders (Saito, 1999).
Vietnamese American children who are the least assimilated into American youth subcultures tend to show the highest levels of academic performance (Zhou & Bankston, 1998). This apparently paradoxical situation may be understood by recognizing the value of traditional customs in eliciting the most productive behavior by children. Lower performing children who exhibit nonconformist attitudes and behavior are likely to be rejected and stigmatized by Vietnamese communities. This ostracism places these children at risk in two ways. First, they are likely to assimilate into the adversarial youth cultures of the low-income neighborhoods that surround them. Second, they tend to be labeled as outsiders by their elders, who concentrate their efforts on good kids.
Despite the commitment of Vietnamese refugees to traditional values, economic necessity has forced them to draw upon their traditions selectively in reconstructing social institutions in the U.S. But they also retain certain norms and values of their home society, which continue to provide the standards for assessing their accomplishments.
Cultural conflicts between immigrant parents and children born or reared in the United States are common. In the case of the Vietnamese, differing life experiences of the children growing up in the U.S. and their immigrant parents can turn the generational gap into a chasm (Rumbaut, 1997; ). Young people want to be accepted by their American friends, not their foreign- born peers, and they internalize public and peer messages that the important things in life are personal prestige, instant gratification, and conspicuous consumption. Children often see their parents as holding tightly to old world norms. Parents see their children as overly attracted to the least constructive sides of American culture. Vietnamese families face the following types of bicultural problems in achieving generational consonance.
Schools and other organizations that work with Vietnamese youth and their families can help them bridge the cultural gap through ethnic community. Specifically, teachers and counselors can promote intergenerational understanding by the following actions:
(4) Provide culturally sensitive adult and peer group assistance to help Vietnamese children cope with family and community pressures and anxiety from bicultural conflicts.
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Long, P.D.P. (1996). The dream shattered: Vietnamese gangs in America. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
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Rumbaut, R.G. (1997). Ties that bind: Immigration and immigrant families in the United States. In A. Booth, A. C. Crouter, & N. Landale (Eds.), Immigration and the family: Research and policy on U.S. immigrants. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Rumbaut, R.G. (1999). Assimilation and its discontents: Ironies and paradoxes. In J. DeWind, C. Hirschman, & P. Kasinitz (Eds.), Becoming American, America becoming. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Saito, L.T. (1999). Socio-cultural factors in the educational achievement of Vietnamese American students. Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Irvine, Department of Education.
Zhou, M., & Bankston, C.L. (1998). Growing up American: How Vietnamese children adapt to life in the United States. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
This digest is based on a section of a monograph, Straddling Two Worlds: The Experience of Vietnamese Refugeee Children in the United States, by Min Zhou and Carl L. Bankston III, published by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education.
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